VENTURA — Inside Skate Street Ventura, the buzz began while ESPN crews readied their equipment. About 700 teens and preteens--packed five deep, perched on their tiptoes and craning their necks--watched and waited.
Finally, a tall figure sheathed in a bright red shirt and cradling a beat-up skateboard emerged from the rear entrance.
Whispers rippled through the crowd. "Is that him?" "That's Tony!"
And there he was, Tony Hawk, skateboarding's "Chairman of the Board," on the latest stop of his 12-city Hawk's Gigantic Skatepark Tour.
The local event pumped the crowd of young skateboarders with the fervor of faithful at a Southern tent revival.
The kids in attendance packed the park for a glimpse of Hawk, 32, and his team--skateboarders Andrew Reynolds, Willy Santos and Jason Ellis and bicycle motocross riders Rich Thorne and Mike Escamilla.
"He's the best because of all the stuff he accomplished that no one else has done," said 12-year-old Steven Skiba, a skate park regular.
James Fenmore, 14, was also excited. "I never seen him before, except I've seen him on TV. It was incredible."
"I want to see the 900," said Dane Hagy, 11, referring to Hawk's signature trick.
Upstairs, a crowd of kids hovered near two television monitors. Neversoft, a company that designs video games, had set up a demo of their latest game for the Sony Playstation--Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, the sequel to his first successful video game.
Off in the corner, Michael and Matthew Egan, ages 4 and 7, who won a "meet Tony Hawk" contest sponsored by Mattel, waited to meet the superstar. Though the young boys had never skated before, the entire Egan family was flown to Ventura from Syracuse, N.Y.
Wide-eyed 14-year-old J.K. Benjamin watched Hawk put on his pads. "He's legendary," J.K. said. "He's one of the best skaters ever."
Then Hawk began to skate, first warming up by spinning the board around, riding it across railings and jumping it over obstacles. The kids cheered and he ran by them slapping their hands.
Hawk commanded the audience, the kids watching in awe as he attempted the wave wall, a ramp that looks like a curling wave and gives any skater a difficult ride. When he falls, many kids gasp. On his third try, Hawk completes the trick, and the audience goes wild.
Hawk is skateboarding's master and grandfather. After starting the sport at age 9, Hawk turned pro just five years later. Now officially retired, he continues to tour and his fans still look up to him as skateboarding's foremost authority.
In the avid skateboarding community, he is the sport's most decorated skater. Hawk also has starred in more than 25 skateboarding videos and has done bit parts in several films as well as commercials for products such as Gatorade, Coca-Cola and Mountain Dew.
But his reputation as skateboarding's No. 1 man is largely due to a nearly impossible trick called the 900, which is 2 1/2 airborne spins above a half-pipe ramp. Only Hawk has ever completed it.
"He's the ambassador for the entire sport," said Jim Fitzpatrick, executive director of the International Assn. of Skateboarding Companies.
Now Hawk is propelling the new wave of young skateboarders into the future with his own skateboarding company, Birdhouse Projects, which he formed with fellow skater Per Welinder. Hawk also maintains his Web site, http://TonyHawk.com, where young skaters can join Club Tony Hawk and obtain T-shirts and free newsletters.
All of that helps feed the fervor that surrounds Hawk, keeps the kids playing his video game and maintains his status as the sport's legend.
"Whatever he does, he makes it look easy," said Victor Ramos, 13. "And he can do a lot more tricks than I can."